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N. Africa's Militant Troubles Take Toll on Morocco Tourism

  • Reuters

FILE - A Spanish tourist, second from left, jokes as she poses with water sellers in original outfits on the Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh, Morocco, March 23, 2008.

FILE - A Spanish tourist, second from left, jokes as she poses with water sellers in original outfits on the Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh, Morocco, March 23, 2008.

French tourist Margot Benet thought twice before boarding her plane bound for Morocco's legendary city of Marrakesh. It was just days after an Islamist militant gunman had killed 38 tourists in neighboring Tunisia.

After she and her family spent nearly a week in Marrakesh and other Moroccan towns without incident, she reckoned that she made the right decision.

But other would-be visitors may not be as convinced that Morocco's beaches, mountains and historic sites are safe from militant attacks following the Tunisia beach massacre in June.

Morocco's safety record is among the best in North Africa, but its tourism professionals cite signs of a significant drop in bookings since the Tunisia attack. They fear tourists do not differentiate among countries in the region.

"Mainly with children, that feeling of putting them in danger was awful," Benet's husband, Olivier, said as the family visited the ancient Hassan mosque in Rabat, the capital. "But terrorism can strike everywhere, including in European countries."

Wider apprehension

Before they came, the Benets had a long debate about safety in Morocco with their tour operator, relatives and friends — reflecting wider apprehension that other parts of North Africa frequented by tourists may be targeted by Islamist radicals.

Tunisia's tourist industry has been hammered by two militant assaults in three months — the Bardo museum in Tunis in March, where 20 foreign tourists were killed, and the Sousse beach resort in June, where most of the victims were Britons.

In Morocco, as it is in Tunisia, tourism is a major and vital source of hard-currency reserves and jobs that shore up the economy.

"We have got many cancellations since the latest attack in Tunisia, and even worse, we don't have any visibility as to the next three months," Farid Kerdad, owner and manager of Riad Al-Maati in the ancient quarter of Rabat. Riads are traditional Moroccan dwellings later converted into hotels.

"What is happening in Tunisia and elsewhere has been definitely affecting Morocco," said Omar Kabbaj, president of Interedec Maroc, which owns four of the biggest hotels in the North African kingdom, including the Hyatt Regency in Casablanca. "We estimate the drop in bookings since the Sousse beach attack at 30 percent, but we are talking only about French tourist reservations. [It's] too early to know about the other nationalities."

Tourism receipts

French tourists account for more than 40 percent of the 10 million tourists Morocco attracts annually. Tourism industry receipts hover around $6 billion per year, or around 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Moroccan Tourism Minister Lahcen Haddad told Reuters it was too early to give figures on the overall impact from Tunisia.

"We have not seen at the moment massive cancellations, but we will see clearer in the coming weeks," Haddad said.

However, Morocco's tourism has already suffered over the past year since the beheading in Algeria of a French tourist by Islamist militants in September, the deadly Islamist attack on the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January, and the massacre at Tunis' Bardo museum in March.

Tourism receipts in Morocco slumped by 6.6 percent in the first half of 2015 to 24 billion dirhams ($2.45 billion), down from 26.13 billion dirhams in the corresponding period last year.

North Africa is seen as vulnerable to militant violence given that thousands of young men, especially from Morocco and Tunisia, now fight with jihadist forces in Iraq and Syria, with some threatening to stage attacks upon their return home.

Morocco has put security services on high alert since July 2014 and often announces it has broken up Islamist militant cells accused of plotting inside and outside the kingdom.

It has suffered many attacks by suspected militants, although the last was four years ago in Marrakesh when an Islamist bomber blew apart a popular tourist cafe, killing 15 people.

"Obviously, security has become very important in the choice of a destination, and our security services have been working scrupulously to protect tourists and Moroccan nationals," Haddad said. "A security system has been also deployed to protect strategic and tourist sites."